You have it to be tough to make it in the crazy world of showbiz, but in rock n’ roll’s weird history maybe nobody was tougher than Don Arden.
Born into the dirty streets of Manchester, Don was busting heads and singing to the radio at a young age. He started singing for his supper as a teenager, struggling to make a living in vaudeville theatres and nightclubs. In the mid 1950s, Arden saw that the real money wasn’t ending up in the hands of performers, so he starting acting as an agent and manager for other musicians.
If you just lay out Don Arden’s management career like a laundry list it sounds pretty impressive. In the '50s he brought American rockers like Gene Vincent and Little Richard over to tour the UK. In the '60s he managed The Small Faces and Nashville Teens, and also helped launch Eric Burdon and the Animals. During the '70s, Arden was running his own label, Jet Records, and making millions managing bands like ELO and Black Sabbath. It all sounds great on paper… but his success was built on intimidation, financial mismanagement, and outright violence.
poster for an early Don Arden production
The Small Faces were one of Arden's early successes
Dig a little deeper into Don Arden’s work and it becomes clear why he was one of the most feared men in music. It started early when he tried to rip off Eddie Cochran, the one man drunk enough and mean enough to fight back. When one of The Nashville Teens asked about the money from their hit single, Arden choked him and threatened to throw him out the window. When the Small Faces--who were living in a mansion paid for from their small cut of record sales but receiving only 20 pounds a week allowance--made the same mistake, he called their parents and accused them of being drug addicts.
Arden saved some of his scariest behaviour for those who interfered in his business. In 1966, Arden heard a rumour that The Small Faces had been seen talking to manager Robert Stigwood. Arden decided to make an example of him. He showed up at Stigwood’s office with a gang of thugs and dangled the terrified Australian out of the window by his ankles. When Fleetwood Mac’s manager, Cliff Davis, tried to approach Arden’s band The Move, he retaliated in brutal fashion. Arden held Davis in a headlock and put out a lit cigar on his forehead. In 1986, Don and his son David were charged with kidnapping and torturing an accountant that had worked for them. Don was found not guilty after his son took the heat for him and pled guilty in exchange for a sentence of two years in prison.
Of all the people Arden went after over the years, he was perhaps nastiest to his own daughter, talk show host/reality star/Ozzy Osborne spouse Sharon Osborne. By the early '80s, Sharon had been
Don Arden and the family in happier
working for her Dad for years, learning the family business. She was looking after Black Sabbath for Don when she fell in love with the terminally wasted lead singer, Ozzy.
When Ozzy got kicked out of Sabbath in 1980, Sharon went with him and planned to manage his solo career. Don Arden hit the roof. He immediately sued his daughter, and repeatedly threatened to kill her. When Sharon came to his
house for a meeting he literally sicced his attack dogs on her. Sharon was badly mauled by the dogs, but it was even worse: she was pregnant at the time and the attack caused a miscarriage. She spent most of the next couple of decades telling everyone that would listen what an evil creep her dad really was, and making sure he knew how much she hated him. She only made up with Arden in the last few years of his life, after he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Some people have made it big in rock n’ roll through their talent. Others did it with their style, or their connections. Don Arden did with his fists, and perhaps more importantly, his terrifying bit of infamy.
In his later years Arden told Daily Mail writer Mick Wall, "the thought of violence is much more of a deterrent than the actual deed. By the time you come to actually hurt someone, it's too late for them, it's over. But the thought of what you might do to them keeps them right where you want them. Always let your reputation precede you."
Donn Arden died in 2007.